February 28, 2012

THON 2012: Brighten Every Journey

This time last week I was standing in a packed arena cheering my lungs out as the total for THON 2012 was revealed. It was an amazing experience, and I am beyond happy I was able to witness it in person. THON is like no other event in the world, and trying to describe it is near impossible. Here's a video of the total reveal. It gives me goosebumps, and it still doesn't come close to capturing the mood in the arena. Beware: the screaming is quite loud, so be sure your volume isn't cranked. And the total for THON 2012 is...

If you're unfamiliar with THON, I urge you to check out THON.org. To summarize though, THON -- whose formal name is The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon -- is a year-long effort to raise funds and awareness for the fight against pediatric cancer. THON benefits the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, and if you aren't familiar with that either, I encourage you to check it out as well; the work they do is truly inspiring. THON is also the largest student-run philanthropy in the world and culminates in a 46-hour no sitting, no sleeping dance marathon (hence, THON).

I won't try to describe every aspect of the weekend, because I meant what I said when I called it indescribable. There really is no way to capture in words the emotions you'll feel at THON. You'll cry during family hour when we hear from Four Diamonds families about what they go through. You'll laugh and cheer during the kids' talent show. And when the total is finally revealed, you'll probably do both. Your heart will swell when you see all the fun the kids are having. You'll be inspired by the stamina of the dancers. And you'll be in awe of the colors, harmony, and all around love that exists at THON. My friends and I joke that THON is the one weekend a year that restores our faith in humanity.

I found this year particularly emotional given the turmoil Penn State has been through. I won't get into that mess here, but I will put it out there that I love Penn State with all my heart, and THON makes me unbelievably proud to be a Penn Stater. I'll let Jay Paterno express the PSU community's feelings with this great speech he made at THON: Let Them Come to THON

But the best part of THON is that it's not about Penn State. It's not about the students, the athletes, or even the money we raise (though that part is pretty awesome). It's all about the kids. The motto of THON is "For the kids" and it's impossible to get through the weekend without hearing an "FTK!" chant. THON is all about letting the kids be kids. They've had to endure more than their share and THON is their time to cut loose.

I've said a lot of words so far in this post, and yet I feel like I've said nothing. I could talk more about the line dance, slides of strength, mail call, the pep rally, getting up at 5am just to get a seat, but it still wouldn't be enough. THON is too amazing and emotional to try to capture in sentences. It needs to be seen to truly be believed. I hope one day all of you have a chance to experience THON for yourself. Even if you're not affiliated with Penn State in any way, I promise you won't be disappointed. I'll leave you with some pictures I took during the weekend. Each one should be worth about a thousand words, so maybe I'll be a little closer to illustrating what it's like. FTK!

January 28, 2012


I know New Year's was essentially a month ago, but sadly I'm just getting around to writing about it now. Please forgive me. Also, fair warning, this will be long.

This year my friend Jackie and I decided to spend NYE in New York since we both have quite a few friends from college in the city. Overall we had an awesome time, but we will probably not be repeating the experience. I am just too much of a grandma. NYC is exhausting on a good day, so throw in an insanely popular holiday, and I'm actually quite surprised we survived.

Our holiday weekend actually began on Thursday when we worked our way from Connecticut to Long Island to spend time with our friend Kate. That's a process and a half. In total it takes about four hours and three different train rides. Nutty! But we made it painlessly (except when Jackie almost elbowed some tourists out of the way when trying to buy a metro card), and the fun times began!

We spent Thursday afternoon on the island and then went into NYC that night for some drinks with Jackie's college crew. We went to a great Irish bar called Molloy's. Having spent time in Ireland, I am obviously biased, but it was awesome. Super casual and great service.

On Friday, I was supposed to meet a friend in the city, but she ended up being sick. :( So we got brunch on the island and then headed into the city later for some shopping and moseying. Jackie requested a visit to Macy's, which neither Kate or I had never been to. Yeah... I'm sure it's a disaster on its best day, but it was still set up for Christmas. It was wall-to-wall people. Kate and I ended up abandoning Jackie to shop while we rode eight or so escalators up and down just trying to escape the crowds. Fortunately, Jackie is a very quick and efficient shopper so we were soon back on our way.

We made the pivotal error of wandering into Times Square, where they were already setting up for the NYE celebrations. There were barriers everywhere and hoards of people trying to take photos of the ball. At one point we ended up caught in a mob on the sidewalk that couldn't move. That was relatively scary and not at all fun. After prying ourselves loose we took refuge in the Hard Rock for dinner. I know it's touristy, but I still love it. The food is good and it's a fun atmosphere.

When we finished dinner and ventured back out into Times Square, we were met with some exciting scenes. First, they were testing the ball! Even though we'd be avoiding Times Square like the plague the next day, we still got to see the ball all lit up. Cool!

The ball wasn't the only thing rehearsing. We also ran into Ryan Seacrest going through his broadcast for the next day! We joined the crowds in the street to snap a few pictures. (I love that you can read the teleprompter behind him.)

We were supposed to meet up with Jackie's college pals again for another round of drinks, but they were running behind schedule, so we trekked over to Rockefeller Center to take in the Christmas decorations. While walking past NBC Studios on our way to see the tree, a solitary car came down the road with people running along side it. Who could it be, we wondered? None other than Paul McCartney! He had the window down a little and waved as he went by. It happened so fast - there was no time for a picture - but we flipped out all the same.

On Saturday, New Year's Eve (Day?), we met up with my friend Rikki in the city and did some more walking around. We got delicious cupcakes at Crumbs (and decided to count that as lunch given the insane calorie count) and then explored Central Park for the afternoon. It was so gorgeous out we didn't even need coats! In New York. In December.

Afterwards, it was time to get all dolled up for our NYE festivities! For three girls in one bathroom I think we did pretty well. I suppose it helps when you already have your outfit picked out. Anyway, we put on our dresses, painted on our faces, and headed to dinner with a bunch of friends.

After dinner we took a cab to the Gansevoort Park Hotel, where our NYE party was being held. I was pretty excited about this event given the Gansevoort's reputation for service and swanky lounges, but unfortunately, I ended up being wildly disappointed.

First, despite that fact that our tickets stated that doors opened at 8pm, we were made to wait outside for almost an hour until about 9:30pm before people were finally allowed inside. Thank goodness it wasn't too cold and it wasn't raining or snowing. I'm not sure what kind of system was in place - perhaps they were trying to prevent backups or break fire codes - but getting inside was a very disjointed process. I was separated several times from my group of friends as we were forced to divvy up and wait in different lines.

When we finally made it to the club floor - and somehow managed to find each other again - the party wasn't too bad. We had fun dancing and enjoying a few drinks. However, overall the party was way too crowded. I can't even begin to count the number of times I was pushed, shoved, stepped on, spilled on, or elbowed. Getting to the bar or the bathroom was a near impossible task.

I was also disappointed in the way we rang in the new year. It seemed like an afterthought instead of the focus of the event. I was expecting champagne to be passed out and TVs to show the ball drop. Instead, it was a free for all to get champagne (assuming you could make it to the bar), and all we got was a break in the music as the DJ did a quick countdown. All in all, not very exciting. 

I could easily have overlooked all that and still left with a positive impression, but what I can not overlook, and will never forget, is what we went through when trying to leave the party. As hard as it was to get in, it was even harder to get out. We were swallowed by a mob of people waiting by the elevators, and frankly I'm surprised we weren't trampled. At one point I tripped over a queue post tipped over on the ground, and another time I ended up stepping on discarded shoes that some unfortunate girls must have lost in the shuffle. To make matters worse, whenever the elevators arrived, people got off, but no one got on (at least that's the way it seemed). It got so bad, that one of our friends began to feel claustrophobic and started to have a panic attack, so we asked an employee guarding the stairs if she could take those down instead of waiting to try to get on an elevator. He told us no. I'm not sure why he was instructed not to let anyone on the stairs; perhaps it's a risk management decision on the hotel's part to avoid drunken patrons falling or getting lost and wandering the hotel. I could understand that. However, I believe exceptions can and should be made in outside circumstances - like when someone is having a panic attack. So I asked if he could find someone to escort her out. He said no. I asked if he could get her on the next elevator down. He said no. When I made one final plea to let my friend - who by this point was having trouble standing and had started to cry - take the stairs due to her state, he yelled at me, verbatim, "Then why is she fucking here?" I have never been spoken to with so much disrespect in my entire life. I was so offended. I understand the hotel has rules, but employees by no means should be swearing at guests. 

Shortly after, the fire alarm went off. I'm sure someone pulled it in a desperate attempt to get out, but regardless, when the alarm sounds, people should be allowed to leave. Heck, they should be told to leave. That was not the case, though. We once again returned to the stairs and were once again denied access. If not for a group of much larger men charging through the door and down the stairs - forcing the rude employee to finally step aside - we poor girls would probably still be up there waiting for an elevator. Assuming we hadn't been trampled of course. I think it goes without saying that I will not be returning to the Gansevoort any time soon. At least we got some cute pictures!

The next morning we met yet another friend for breakfast. Don't you love when practically everyone you know is in the same place at the same time? Afterwards, we all bid adieu and Jackie and I headed to see How to Succeed in Business for Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette's last show. I can't begin to describe my excitement. The service at the theater and the show itself certainly made up for NYE's antics.

The show was amaaaazing! I know I say that a lot and I've never really met a musical comedy I haven't loved, but seriously, I was dying. John and Daniel complemented each other so well. Plus, since it was the last show, the audience was insane, and the actors took longer pauses than normal just to let us cheer. At the end of Brotherhood of Man (the second to last number), the dancers kept Daniel on their shoulders and applauded him. They even stood him up and made him give a little wave. I thought he was crying at one point, but I think it was just sweat. At the end he came out and gave a little speech that was so so cute. I even thwarted the camera nazi for a few quick shots. 

But of course, all good times must come to an end. We hot-footed it through some light rain to Grand Central and walked straight onto a train back to Connecticut, thus concluding our NYE in NYC adventures. 

Thanks for making it this far. Sorry for the insanely long post. Happy New Year! I hope 2012 has been good to you so far. 

January 27, 2012

The Year Ahead

Hello travel bugs! I now it's been ages and there really is no excuse for not updating, but I have been extraordinarily busy. I promise a post all about my crazy New Year's experiences in NYC is coming soon now that I've finished my grad apps and can focus on what's coming up. January was my last month to get things sorted out, because starting in February my calendar is practically booked solid with fun travels through the end of April. Here's a sneak peek:

February 3-5: Weekend in Connecticut with friends to celebrate several birthdays (including mine!)
February 17-19: THON at Penn State (AMAZING experience! If you don't know about THON, go to thon.org to learn more.)
March 11-22: Europe! Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague here I come!
April 6-9: Easter weekend with friends in Boston
April 23-28: Vacation with friends in Puerto Rico!

There are a few more tentative trips on the horizon depending on schedules and what happens with my grad apps, but I think these should keep me pretty busy in the meantime. Hope you all had good holidays and have some fun plans on your calendars!

December 15, 2011

A Very Travel Bug Christmas

Hello travel bugs! I know it's been ages since I've posted a legitimate update, but I've been a very busy bee. I wanted to get in a special post about Christmas ideas for the travelers in your life, though, before the holidays were out. Plus, starting tomorrow, my life will be going non-stop until the new year, so I won't have any time for posting (but I will be racking up - hopefully - some exciting travel stories to share!).

For those who've followed my earlier posts, you know my family is traveling to Europe in a few months. So when it came time to pick out Christmas gifts for them, I wanted something they could use/wear/enjoy while we were traveling. After brainstorming with some of the wise travelers in my life, I was sent to The Container Store - aka an organizer's paradise. If money were no object, I probably would have bought out their entire travel section. Call me a geek, but I'm a sucker for cute cosmetic organizers.

After perusing each and every item The Container Store has to offer, I decided to create my own unique set of travel essentials for my family (and one for me too of course). Each set includes two packing organizers, shoe protectors, and the perfect carry-on, TSA friendly toiletry bag.

Here's why I'm (dorkily) already so excited about putting these travel essentials to use:

Larger Packing Cube - While I thought it would be a bit bigger, it's still great for keeping your suitcase organized. I don't know that it neccessarily gives you any more space, but it definitely makes for more efficient packing. I tested it out, and you can get about four good sized sweaters in the cube. Best of all, they'll stay nicely rolled and won't get squashed. The cube is about the width of a standard, large rolling suitcase, so it will fit nicely and stay put (assuming the rest of your bag is full of course).

Smaller Packing Cube
- At first this cube baffled me, as I was disappointed and put off by its small size. Surely I wouldn't be able to fit much beyond some socks and maybe a tank or two. But then I realized my thinking was too limited. I was only thinking about clothes, when we all know far more goes into your suitcase than just clothes. And this cube is perfect for those other odds and ends, like a cell phone charger, camera, a hair brush, etc. Anything you normally throw with wild abandon into your suitcase can now be neatly stowed away with this helpful little cube. 

Shoe Covers
- The picture makes it look as though high-heels will fit with ease into these bags, but unless they're kitten heels, I think you'll have to do a bit more stretching. My taller heels do fit, but the bags look pretty warped. But their purpose isn't to look pretty, it's to protect your shoes, and that they do. Perfect for keeping dress shoes safe from scuffs or scratches or protecting the other things in your suitcase from any crud that may be on your shoe soles. The bags are big enough for someone with little feet like me to squeeze a complete pair of flats or flip flops into one bag, but people with larger feet may have to do some shoving to get their shoes in.

Travel Pack - Anyone who's flown at some point in the last 10 years knows the TSA is doing its best to make getting through security a hassle and a half. This travel pack will at least cut down on one of those hassles. The pouch is made of super tough plastic, so it's way better than the standard Zip-loc bag. The travel sized bottles are also a life saver. No more relying on the hotel shampoo and soap, you can bring your own! The jars are great too for medicine, mints, or even jewelry. You get to label the bottles yourself and one label is even left blank for you to write in. Best of all, the pack has already by approved by the TSA!

So there you have it, a sneak preview of what will be under the tree at my house this Christmas. Of course there are a thousand different directions I could have taken the travel inspiration when thinking of gifts - clothing, books, technology. I went the luggage/organization route, but what are some other travel essentials that you think would make good gifts?

November 11, 2011

Photo Friday - Salzburg, Austria

This week's photo marks another stop I'll be making when I travel abroad with my family next year: Salzburg, Austria! The city made famous by a little movie called The Sound of Music. I'm sure we'll partake in a few cheesy tours, but I'm really excited to go beyond that and explore what else the city has to offer. Clearly it's gorgeous, so I'm betting even walking around would thrill me. One of my friends called it his favorite city in Europe; I'm looking forward to finding out why.

October 28, 2011

Photo Friday - Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge - Prague, Czech Republic

This week's photo is not my own (I wish), but hopefully I can capture one similar to it in a few months. That's right, in about five months, I'll have the pleasure of visiting Prague for the first time when my family travels to Europe for two weeks. I'm beyond excited to get back to Europe, and Prague is one of the top cities on my list - just look at that skyline! - so I'm excited we were able to fit it in. Expect more pictures in the coming weeks as I pinpoint some other places we'll be visiting. 

October 15, 2011

Couch-Surfing: Cool or Creepy?

A few weeks ago, a female friend of mine traveled abroad to Europe for the first time. She went with just one other friend (also a girl), and they backpacked their way through Germany, Spain, and Italy. While planning the trip, she was understandably a tad nervous about where to stay, how to get around, general safety, and what have you. Since I have been abroad several times and lived in Ireland for five months, she turned to me for advice. We spent a lot of time talking Europe, and I even sent her a four page email that she lovingly referred to as a "manual" (I'm pretty sure she even took it over there with her). What can I say, I love to talk about traveling. Helping her plan her trip was part of what inspired me to start this blog. But I digress.

I knew going into the planning process that I was a much more high maintenance traveler than she would be. While I did stay in hostels and take the train, I was certainly no stranger to hotels and airplanes either. I like to save my pennies, but I think when you travel you need to embrace that you're there for an experience, so it's worth it to spend a bit more on a plane ticket if it's going to get you more time to explore, and hotels can offer more peace of mind over a hostel. I explained all this to her, but I knew she would be extremely budget conscience and probably skip the finer things anyway.

What I was not expecting, though, was for her to tell me she and her friend would be staying with random strangers. I assumed when she said "Oh, we're not staying in a hostel, we're staying with Joe Shmoe," that Joe was a friend of her travel companion. Maybe an old college buddy. Maybe a distant cousin. But no. Instead, Joe was some kid they found on the Internet. The Internet! Major red flags popped up. I've seen Taken. I know the drill.

Now, to be fair to my friend, she is extremely smart and resourceful. I trust her to research everything thoroughly and make good choices. However, she's a bit of a daredevil, and with that, she's far more trusting than I am. I'm deeply cynical by nature, so my first instinct is to assume anyone you meet online must be a crazy predator - especially someone of the opposite gender who's offering to let you sleep on his couch (tell me that's not good self-preservation). Therefore, I did take the protective friend approach and drill her about where exactly on the Internet she found her hosts and how she knew they weren't going to murder her while she slept.

My friend exposed me to the site CouchSurfing.org, which I have to admit, sounded completely shady to me. Surely this had to be just one step up from Craigslist, right? Heck, it's probably worse because they cut out all the crap for sale and get straight to the sketchy people offering their gross couches as a place to rest your head. So imagine my surprise when I visited the site and found that it's a fully functional organization. It's even been featured in the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, and TIME. What the? It almost concerns me more that major publications endorse this crime-ring masquerading as a legitimate method of travel.

With couch-surfing, people can advertise their homes and offer travelers a place to stay. Likewise, travelers can find free beds for the night. This process comes with a lot of trust on both sides, though. Hosts must feel comfortable letting complete strangers sleep under their roofs, and travelers must feel comfortable entering a home without knowing the person who lives there. To me, there are just too many opportunities for things to go wrong. Perhaps it's because I'm a girl, but I can't help but think what a pickle you'd be in if the person you hooked-up with didn't turn out to be who you thought. You've either shown them into your home, so good luck getting rid of them, or you're stuck in a place you don't want to be. Scary!

If you're more open-minded than I am, though, you may be able to see why this is actually becoming a really trendy and accepted way to travel. Now that we're in the age of social media, connecting with people all over the world is fast and easy. Divisions and barriers are breaking down as we all connect through the digital landscape. CouchSurfing.org is just another way to forge those connections - using the digital world as a means to translate interaction into the real world. Great travelers always say the best way to experience a land and a culture is by getting to know the locals, and couch-surfing certainly helps you do that. You're staying with a local, so assuming you find a good one, you've gotten yourself a guide and translator. It definitely makes for a more interesting stay than just retiring to a standard hotel room every night.

So here's an example of where first impressions can be wrong. I explored CouchSurfing.org - at least, I explored the site as far as I could without creating an account, so 1 point for security - and found that it was not as shady and doom-filled as I assumed. While participants don't have to undergo an in-depth background check or disclose their wrap sheet, there is a system of references and identity verification. At the very least, they ensure Joe Shmoe has provided his real name and address, and hopefully other people who have stayed with him (and survived to tell the tale) have written references about what a great host he was.

Getting back to my friend, she has since returned from Europe and therefore will not be starring in Taken 2: Couch-Surfing Gone Bad (phew!). In fact, she really enjoyed the experience. She got a free place to stay and a guide to show her some of the sights. I myself could still never be comfortable with this arrangement, but I'm glad she was able to get something out of it. If you're up for an added piece of adventure on your next trip - and unlike me you have faith in humanity - perhaps it's something to look into. It's the new hot trend in travel, but I'll still be the dork in the hotel.